I love working with animals. There is something absolutely rewarding of crossing the barrier of communication between myself and them. Sure, it’s great teaching an animal fun behaviors like, turning in a circle, throwing a piece of trash away, jumping over jumps, weaving through poles, dancing, and even going bowling, but I’m more fascinated about all the other behaviors animals can learn to make their lives in captivity much more rewarding.
Believe it or not, positive reinforcement training wasn’t always a thing in zoos. It was embraced in order to make the lives of the animals less stressful and more stimulating. Is it not better to have a diabetic ape present its body voluntarily for its insulin injections/blood withdrawals, than to corner it and capture it and force it to? This isn’t even the tip of the enormous iceberg that is the amazing work that people like myself, do behind the scenes at zoos and aquariums all over the world in an effort to lessen the stress to the animals and stimulate their minds at the same time. Being able to ask an animal for something is far better than forcing an animal to do something, even if it’s for the sake of the animal’s health.
One of the amazing things I find, when working with animals, is when you have to work with a group of them. Success is based on the cooperation of all members of the group, which can get complicated when you deal with all the hierarchies involved in animal social structures. There is always a more dominant individual that is eager to stifle the subordinates.
I worked for 7 years at a private facility. There, I worked with mostly hoofstock. I was able to work with the animals as individuals, however, I wanted to work with them as a group as well. In one pasture, I had 2 mini horses and 3 mini donkeys. One mini horse was dominant of them all. If he wanted something, he would just push and buck his way into it. The donkeys weren’t always happy to have things go down like that and within their own social structures, some were more bossy than others.
I was on a mission. It was fairly simple and nothing to write home to mom about, but for me, it would be a great achievement. I wanted to walk into the pasture, with my training pouch full of carrot bits, and feed all the members of the pasture without any fighting. This is what we would call a Group Contingency, or “Team Behavior”. They all had to learn that they needed to be nice to one another and everyone would get their share of carrots. The groups reward relied heavily on the behaviors of each individual. The second an ear went back, someone bucked, someone attempted to nip at someone else, I left the pasture. No treats for anyone. This of course, was not a success from the very beginning. It took many attempts and patience, but in the end, the group learned and a beautiful moment was created. All individuals, began behaving nicely to one another, until the very last carrot was handed out. To me, that is beautiful and brilliant. It’s moments like the one pictured below that are more rewarding than any “roll over”. It’s knowing that I was not only able to cross into the language barrier between human and animal, but also set an entire new standard of how everyone can work as a team together in order for all individuals to benefit.
© Semi Charmed Life
This post is part of the A to Z Challenge!